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In a world where Christianity has been, in the words of Professor Bart D. Ehrman, “the most powerful religious, political, social, cultural, economic, and intellectual institution in the history of Western civilization,” most of us have grown up believing we know the answers to these questions:

  • Were the early Christians really hunted down and martyred, with repeated persecutions for an illegal religion forcing them to hide in the catacombs of Rome?
  • Did the ancient Jews of Jesus’ time always believe in a single, all-powerful God?
  • How did breaking away from their Jewish roots make Christians more vulnerable in the Roman world?
  • What were the origins of what we now consider the distinctively Christian liturgical practices of baptism and the Eucharist?

But do we know the answers? As this course shows, the answers are, in fact, quite surprising.


See How Today’s Christianity Emerged

The traditional form of Christianity we know today includes beliefs, practices, a canon of sacred scripture, and even its own stated history, but it emerged only after many years of transition and conflict—with Judaism and with what can now only be called the “lost Christianities.”

That term, of course, is familiar to anyone who has taken Professor Ehrman’s earlier course, Lost Christianities: Christian Scriptures and the Battles over Authentication.

And now Professor Ehrman, whose previous and popular efforts for The Teaching Company also include The Historical Jesus and The New Testament, has created a course that places those forgotten forms of the faith in an even broader context.


From the Religion of Jesus to a Religion about Jesus

These lectures take you back to Christianity’s first three centuries to explain its transition from the religion of Jesus to a religion about Jesus.

It introduces you to lost Christianities and their sacred writings. And it shows how many of those writings were originally proscribed or destroyed, only to be rediscovered in modern times.

You also learn how a single group from among many won the struggle for dominance, which allowed it to:

  • Establish the beliefs central to the faith
  • Rewrite the history of Christianity’s internal conflicts
  • Produce a canon of sacred texts—the New Testament—that supported its own views.


From 20 Followers … to Two Billion

These lectures offer a fresh and provocative perspective on what are perhaps the most intriguing questions of all:

How could a movement originally made up of perhaps only 20 low-class followers of a Jewish apocalyptic preacher crucified as an enemy of the state grow to include nearly four million adherents in only 300 years?

And how would it eventually become the largest religion in the world, with some two billion adherents?

To answer those questions, Professor Ehrman examines Christianity from several directions:

  • The faith’s beginnings, starting with the historical Jesus and the other individuals and traditions that formed the foundation of the emerging religion
  • Jewish-Christian relations, including the rise of anti-Judaism within the Christian church and the emergence of Christianity as a religion different from and ultimately opposed to the Jewish religion from which it emerged
  • The way Paul and other Christians spread the new faith, including the message they proclaimed and their approaches to winning converts
  • Hostility to the Christian mission from those who were not persuaded to convert and who considered Christianity to be dangerous or antisocial, leading to the persecutions of the 2nd and 3rd centuries
  • Internal struggles within the faith, as Christians with divergent understandings sought to make their beliefs the ones that defined the one “true” faith
  • The factors that led to the formation of traditional Christianity we know today, with its canon of New Testament scriptures, set creeds, liturgical practices such as baptism and the Eucharist, and church hierarchy.


Christianity’s Evolution from Judaism

In tracing the process by which Christianity evolved from its origins within Judaism to become something dramatically different, Professor Ehrman discusses how most Jews simply weren’t willing to accept Jesus as the Messiah.

Professor Ehrman conveys the Jewish perspective on what the Messiah would be like. And you learn how much of it was based on Jesus’ own teachings, which the early Christians were attempting to alter in trying to gain Jewish converts.

But he also explains how early Christianity, even though it was increasingly at odds with Judaism, also found a degree of legitimacy under its umbrella.

Professor Ehrman points out that this was a time when ancientness itself was essential for a faith seeking acceptance. So as Christianity separated from Judaism, it sought a means of asserting ancient roots in its own right.


Learn Christianity’s Argument for Its Ancient Roots

Christianity argued its ancient roots by retaining the Jewish scriptures and arguing that it was, in fact, the fulfillment of what those scriptures had promised.

Throughout these lectures, Professor Ehrman challenges old misconceptions and offers fresh perspectives on aspects of Christianity and its roots that many of us might have thought we already understood. For example:

  • The five common myths about early Christianity, including that it was illegal in the early empire and that Christians were pursued and persecuted: It was not declared illegal until the middle of the 3rd century, and was tolerated in most places, just as other religions were.
  • The belief that early Judaism was exclusively monotheistic: Although Judaism was unusual in the Roman world in that Jews insisted on worshipping only one god, you learn that there is good evidence that at different periods in history, Jews—like others in those pagan times—believed in the existence of multiple gods.
  • The development of the New Testament canon was as a way to both differentiate Christians from Jews and also create a body of text substantiating their views.
  • The roots of baptism and the Eucharist are in Jewish liturgical traditions and rumors about the alleged licentiousness of the baptism ceremony led apologists such as Justin Martyr and Tertullian to write publicly about those heretofore secret practices.
  • Wild charges of child sacrifices, cannibalism, and licentiousness were often made against Christians, and the persecutions that did occur.
  • Walter Bauer’s research revealed that many forms of Christianity deemed heretical were, in fact, the earliest forms that could found in most places.
  • The movement by church scholars of the early 16th century to once again create from surviving Greek texts a New Testament in the original Greek, and how forgery often reared its head.

These lectures are an engaging experience that will increase your understanding of Christianity today. They offer you a scholar’s perspective on the origins of what Professor Ehrman describes as the most important institution in Western civilization.

Visit From Jesus to Constantine: A History of Early Christianity (The Great Courses) to read more...

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